But Jack Frost did not care a bit, for he loved freezing; and when the winter nights were come, with the moon shining, and the stars twinkling and blinking ever so high up, Jack would put on his skates and go skimming over the country, breathing on people's window-panes, and making them all over ferny frost-work; hanging icicles round the eaves of the houses; making the roads so hard that they would sound hollow and rattle as the wheels passed over; and turning the ponds, lakes, and rivers into hard ringing ice. Then the frost would hang upon the labourers' hair, and little knobs of ice upon the bristles about the horses' muzzles; while some of the branches of the trees would become so loaded with the white clinging snow that they would snap off and fall to the ground. Away would troop the birds in the day-time then to feast upon the scarlet berries of the holly, the pearly dew-like drops of the mistletoe, or the black coaly berries that grew upon the ivy-tod; and away and away they would fly again with wild and plaintive cries as Jack Frost would send a cutting blast in amongst them to scare them away. How the poor birds would look at the man cutting logs of wood to take to the master's house; and how they would watch the blue smoke and sparks come curling out of the wide chimneys. In the night the wild geese would fly over to the moor, crying "Clang-clang-clang," and frightening many a shivering sleeper with their wild shriek; and then the long-necked birds would dart down from their high swoop to some lonely lake in the wild moor, there to sit upon the cold ice, pluming themselves ere they started again for some spot where the frost king had not all his own way.
Old Ogrebones, the kingfisher, lay snug at the bottom of his hole in the bank; while all the tender birds were far-off in milder climes, where flies were to be caught, and where the sun shone bright and warm. As to the poor ducks, they could do nothing but paddle and straddle about over the surface of the glassy pond, for almost as soon as the hard ice was broken for them to get water, it all froze together again; and in spite of their thick coats of warm down and feathers, they said it was almost too cold to be borne. The rooks had gone down to the sea-side and the mouths of the rivers to pick up a living when the tide went down; while all the other birds that were not in the fields made friends with the sparrows, and went in flocks to the farmyards, where they could find stray grains of corn, and run off with them, chased by the old cocks and hens. And still Jack Frost had it all his own way, and stuck his cold, sharp teeth into everything and everybody—even into the foreign thrushes and grey crows that came over from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and nipped them so that they all said they had better have stayed at home.
Now, all this could not have been borne, only that Jack Frost would go to sleep sometimes, and then down would come a soft, warm rain that would wash away the snow and melt the ice, and soften the ground so that food became plentiful again; and the birds would set to and make up for lost time by having such a feast as would make them better able to bear Jack Frost's next fast, and strong enough to set his sharp teeth at defiance.
They were fine times for feasting when the thaw had set in, for then, as the earth grew soft, the worms would come crawling out to have a stretch, after being asleep beneath the iron-bound earth. As for the rooks, they ate until they could hardly move, and gormandised in a way that could only be excused in things that could not get their meals at regular times. "Snip-snap" went the bills all over the marshlands, and gobble-gobble went the poor worms; and so for about a week the birds had such a feast that their skins all got quite tight with the thick jacket of fat that was spread beneath them to keep the cold out, and all their feathers began to stick up so that they had plenty of work to smooth them down. But such weather did not last long, for soon Jack Frost would wake up again, quite cross to think how long he had slept, and then on he would put his sharp steel skates again, and away over the country he would skim with all the land turning to iron wherever he went, and looking as if the keen old fellow had been sprinkling diamonds and emeralds and pearls all over the ground. As to the sheep, they would quite rattle with the knobs of ice upon their wool, while the turnips they were nibbling out in the fields were like snowballs. And away skimmed Jack Frost by the light of the bright moon, while all the stars kept laughing and winking at his freaks, and soon again all the country was powdered over with snow, and the water all turned to ice. Then at night, when the cold cutting wind would hum outside the doors and sing through all the chinks, trying to get in, people would draw the red curtains close, and heap up the dry logs of wood upon the fire till the bright blue flames would dance and flicker, and flicker and dance, and roar up the chimney; but all the time sending such warmth and comfort through the rooms that the wind would give up trying, and, knowing that it could not battle with such a warm fire, would rush off again over the bare woods and fields to help Jack Frost, and bear away the words of the song he was singing, so that everybody could hear it. For the icy fellow as he skimmed along would laugh and shout to see how everybody was afraid of him, and lighted fires to keep him away; and then he would sing,—
"I kiss cheeks and make them rosy; I make people wrap up cosy; I bring chilblains, chaps, and nipping; I send people quickly tripping. See my breath all silver lacing; Feel my touch how cold and bracing; Come and race o'er ground so snowy; Come and trip 'mid breezes blowy. I'll make little eyes look brightly; I'll make little hearts beat lightly; And when cheeks grow red as cherry, Then will echo voices merry. For I'm Jack Frost who makes cheeks rosy; I make people wrap up cosy; I bring chilblains, chaps, and nipping; But send the little people tripping."
But in spite of all Jack Frost could do, the birds at Greenlawn would manage to get through the harsh time of winter, looking out for the spring to come again; and happy and contented, though always very busy, and trying hard to do their duty as well when the cold wintry rains fell, or the biting sleet, or soft falling snow, or even when the ground was all hard and they were nearly starved, as when plenty reigned around; for still they hoped on, and waited for spring, that seemed so long in coming, but yet would surely come at last, however long it might appear, and tire their patience.
One morning, when a soft breeze from the south had melted away all the snow, and the bright sun had thawed all the ice in the ditches, brooks, and ponds, everything looked so bright and fine, that the snowdrops and crocuses popped their heads out of the ground, and kept calling to one another across the gravel walk, "All a-growin' and a-blowin'," as the men who bring round the flowers. Two or three violets opened their little blue eyes, too, and poking at the dead leaves that were lying on them, kept trying to get a peep at the bright sun; for he had had a bad cold all through the winter, and had kept his head wrapped up in thick mists and clouds, only showing himself now and then; and when he did, his face looked all red, swelled, and inflamed, as though he had got a dreadful fit of neuralgic-tic-doloreuginal-toothache. And now the blue-eyed violets wanted to have a peep at the sun, and to nod at their old friend; but the leaves lay so wet and heavy upon them that they could hardly get out, and when they did, poor things, their heads were all bent down, and they looked as drooping as though their necks were cricked with sleeping in a damp bed. And truly it was a very damp bed— the violets'—all moss and wet grass in a shady bank; but the cheerful little flowers did not mind it a bit, but sent forth such a sweet scent all through the hedgerows, that as soon as the birds smelt it they began to sing, and to think it was time to build nests again.
"Spring's come! spring's come!" shouted a little chiff-chaff, just come over from a foreign country all in a hurry; for while he was getting ready, and thinking it was time to pay a visit to England, there came a great storm of wind, and caught up the little, tiny greeny bird and blew him right over the seas; and then, because it was a bright day when he got here, he began running up and down the country crying out "Spring's come! spring's come!" when spring was only just putting one or two of her toes in the shape of crocuses and snowdrops out of her wintry bed, to see how cold it was, and whether she might get up yet.
Spring had not come, for it was too soon, and the stupid little chiff-chaff thought himself such an important little body that because he had come spring must have come too. And no end of mischief he did, for as is always the case when one person does a foolish thing, plenty more begin to follow the bad example; and so one bird after another took up the cry, till it rang all over Greenlawn that spring had come; and the birds set to work in such a hurry to repair last year's damaged nests or to make new ones. As to the rooks, they came all in a bustle to the old limes and held a parliament, which every now and then turned into a squabble about some favourite spot, and there they all stopped talking, and flying round and round, but soon began again, to keep on till it grew quite dark, and then they were silent till some obstinate bird or another would say something crooked, and then out they all burst again—"Caw-caw-caw," till the awkward rook was talked down; then somebody else would have the last word, when they broke out again two or three times over, till at last it grew so dark that the rooks were afraid to speak any more, lest somebody should come and upset them upon their perches, and they not see the enemy coming.
The next morning everybody began to call the chiff-chaff names, and to say it was a little cheat; for a sharp sleety rain had been falling for hours and freezing as it fell, so that all the rooks' claws were stuck fast to the tall, top branches of the limes. As to the crocuses, they had squeezed themselves up as small as grass, and half crept back into the earth, while the snowdrops had shut up their houses and pulled down the green blinds to keep the cold out, and as to the violets, why, they crept under the dead leaves again to wait for the sun's next appearance.
No; it was not spring yet, and no one knew it better than the little chiff-chaff, who had crept into the ivy-tod, where the great dark leaves flopped down, and kept everything dry underneath; and there the poor little thing kept dancing the dicky-bird's dance, and going bibbity-bob, bibbity-bobberty, up and down, to keep himself warm, and wishing that the great, rough, rude wind had blown somebody else out of the warm country to cry "Spring's come; spring's come," because it happened to be a fine bright sunshiny day.
But the little bird did not mean to do wrong, and so he stopped in the ivy-tod and lived upon cold spider for a whole week, drinking the melted sleet off the ivy leaves, and wishing all the time that spring had come, for he expected no end of friends and relations over as soon as the weather was fine enough; and, besides, he was anxious to feel the warm weather; for he was rather a delicate little fellow, who was obliged to go to a warm place in the winter time for the benefit of his health, and only came to spend the fine part of the year at Greenlawn.
SPRING AT LAST.
"Build away, birds; there's no chiff-chaff trickery this time. Spring is here," said the thrush, "and here's all the company coming. All the swallow family are over, and here's the wryneck been playing a tune upon its comb all the morning; as for those sit-up-o'-night birds, they've been sing-sing, till I'm almost tired of it, and wish they would set to work and find something better to do. But what's the matter down there?"
It was plain that something was the matter, for all the birds were leaving their work on purpose to go and see what was wrong; for there was the yard-dog, Boxer, loose in the garden again, barking, and snapping, and snarling at something rolled up amongst the dead leaves. The thrush flew up, and settling on a low branch, stopped to watch what was the matter; and he soon saw, for there, causing all the noise, was a tightly-rolled up hedgehog, with his sharp spines sticking up all over, and looking for all the world like a sharp round hair-brush. As for Boxer, he was sniffing and snuffing and pricking his nose in his efforts to get Blacknose open; but the little spikey thing would not open the least bit in the world, but kept himself rolled up snug and fast, with nothing but spines and thorns sticking out all over him. The more Boxer sniffed and poked at the round ball, the more he got pricked, and then he held up his head and whined in so comical a way, that all those who were looking on could not keep from laughing, which made the dog so cross that he barked at the birds, and made believe to bite; only they were all out of reach; and this made him all the more cross and snappish.
At last Boxer got the prickly thing close to the bank, and over it rolled right down into an old rabbit's hole, where the dog could not reach it; so then he turned round and ran at the first thing he saw, which happened to be the magpie, who stayed so long upon the ground before flying up, that the dog got hold of one of his tail-feathers.
"Pull, magpie!" shouted the birds. And magpie did pull, as hard as ever he could pull, and fluttered and flew, but he could not get his tail-feather away, so had to leave it behind with Boxer, who quietly sat down on the grass and began to gnaw and tear the beautiful glossy green plume, until he had completely spoiled it, when he threw it away, and began to look out for some more fun; whilst poor Mag's tail was so sore, that he went home grumbling and half-crying at his misfortune.
Busier and busier the birds grew every day; there was no one idle in Greenlawn in spring-time, but all hard at work, build-build-build from morning, when the first rosy peep of day appeared, and the blackbird cried out, "Wake-wake-wake," until the night closed in, and the pale new moon peeped down from amid the light clouds, watching over the nesting birds, with their beaks tucked snugly under their wings, and gently swaying about upon the light branch that rocked them to sleep with the easy motion of the soft spring breeze. Sweetly then used to sing the nightingales, perched on the low boughs of the fresh-leaved bushes, and whistling for their wives, not yet come over the sea; whistling and answering one another from wood to wood, and from grove to grove, until the night rang with the sweet sounds, and bird after bird would draw out its head to listen to the sweet, strong-voiced warblers. But generally the birds used to grumble at the nightingale, and say it was not fair of him to make such a noise of a night. They wanted peace and quietness; and one old greenfinch, who could not sing a bit, and had no ear for music, used to say that the nightingale was as great a nuisance as old Shoutnight, the owl, and that his noises ought to be stopped.
But one night there was such a shouting and hoo-hooing that all the birds woke up in a fright. One asked the other what it meant, but no one knew, and every now and then, ringing through the still night, came the wild strange cry. Even the master of Greenlawn opened his window and looked out and wondered, and at last crabby old Todkins, the gardener, opened his window, and even called the birch-broom boy up to listen; but they could not make out what the noise was. Nobody knew, and at last they began to be like the birds, rather frightened; for it was such a wild, dreadful cry as they had never heard before.
"It's a wild goose," said Mrs Spottleover to her mate.
"You're a goose," said Spottleover, all of a shiver. "You never heard a goose cry out like that. It's like a peacock, only ten times more horrible; and—there it goes again; isn't it dreadful?"
The old owl said it was a rude boy trying to hoot; while the saucy jackdaw said it was nothing to be afraid of, for it was only old Shoutnight with a bad cold.
But, last of all, out came the old gardener with a lantern in one hand, a stick in the other, and his red nightcap on, to look round the garden and see what was the matter. No sooner was he out on the lawn than all the stupid birds began to look about his light to see what it was made of, and how it was that what they took for a glow-worm should be going about the lawn; and still all this while the dreadful cry kept coming, now higher, now lower, and the gardener could not find out what it was; but at last he stood stock-still and scratched his head, until the tassel of his red nightcap went jiffle-iffle, and danced up and down like a loose leaf on a twig.
"There, I don't care," said the gardener; "I'm going home to bed again; so ye may shout all night, whatever ye are, unless ye like to speak. But, hallo, Boxer, boy! what is it?" he said, as the dog laid hold of his leg and then ran on before him, turning round every now and then to see if his master would follow; and at last he did follow the dog till it stopped, barking and smelling, at the edge of the dip well, where the water-grotto was, and the cresses grew under the trickling spring—a little well-like place it was; and just as the old man came up the cry seemed to rise out of the water so wildly and shrilly, that he gave a jump and dropped his lantern.
Fortunately, however, the lantern did not go out, and so he quickly picked it up again and held it down, and there, swimming round and round, and unable to get out, was poor Blacknose, the hedgehog, getting fainter and fainter, and nearly drowned, and crying out for somebody to pull him out.
"Well, only to think of that little thornball making all that noise," said the gardener, helping the poor thing out and setting it on the grass; when it was so grateful that it would have thanked him if it could, but it could not, and so stopped there quite still while Boxer put his cold black nose up to it, and stood wagging his thick stumpy tail; for he was too generous a dog to meddle with anyone in trouble, even a hedgehog; and piggy, feeling that he was in distress, and an object of sympathy, did not even attempt to curl up, but lay quite still, waiting for his visitors to go.
"Well," said the old man, "I suppose I am not going to hurt ye, for the master won't have anything hurt; so come along, Boxer; and dinna ye be fetchin' a chiel oot o' bed at sic a time o' nicht again, or ye may e'en stop i' the water." And then the old gardener went off to his cottage; and Boxer, after a run back and a scamper round the rescued hedgehog, went to his kennel.
And so things went on at Greenlawn, year after year, and season after season. It may perhaps seem a very wonderful place; but there are a great many little Greenlawns all over England, where little eyes may see the birds do many of the things that have been told in this little story—a story thought of to please two little girls who were very fond of leaning up against somebody's knee in the evenings before the candles were lighted, and asking somebody to tell them a story.